Review: Second City, Backstage at the World’s Greatest Comedy Theater by Sheldon Patinkin

July 15th, 2014

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A nice history of Chicago’s famous improv comedy troupe. The book does a good job delving into Second City’s origins, calling up Chicago’s theater scene in the early 1950s as well as the acting “games” that inspired the group’s original approach.

From there, author (and longtime Second City creative director) Sheldon Patinkin takes us to the present day, pausing to catch up with famous alumni, notably the Murray-Belushi-Ramis core in Chicago and the Akroyd-Candy-Radner glory days in Toronto. There are tons of familiar faces in here, from Alan Arkin to Tina Fey, and it’s fun to see how they intersected with Second City (sometimes briefly) before moving on to other things.

The lifers have a presence as well, including original owner (and occasional director) Bernie Sahlins, producer Joyce Sloan and actor/director/madman Del Close. It may just be effective PR, but the book does have a nice familial feel, emphasizing the ties, and the occasional fights, that drew these disparate performers together.

The book is more a history than a humor collection; jokes and bits are interspersed throughout its pages, but it’s more a collection of memories. There’s often a lot going on–actors coming and going, new playhouses opening in different spots to try to make some money. The narrative sometimes seems reduced to just a sequence of events–”this happened, then this happened, etc.” But the performer profiles sprinkled throughout and the clear reverence for what the group accomplished offer a unifying thread.

Hardly a tell-all, this is still a good read for comedy fans interested in the institutional side of things. It probably helps to be a Chicagoan…or at least a Torontonian.

Review: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

July 14th, 2014

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” is a moving young-adult offering from Sherman Alexie. The story centers around Junior, a teen living in a Spokane Indian reservation who decides to chase a better life by leaving his tribal high school for a better (and all-white) school in a nearby town. His home community feels he’s betrayed them even as he struggles to fit into his new environment. You have all the familiar teen problems on top of that, with racism, poverty and marginalization thrown in the mix.

Alexie covers this ground with sympathy and humor, sharing a narrative that references his own upbringing. Even before he leaves the reservation Junior is an outcast, a frequent target for bullies due to some disabilities (seizures associated with “water on the brain” at birth) and general nerdiness. After a rocky start, his new community is more accepting, although tragedy and some well-timed cross-the-tracks basketball games lead Junior to wonder where his loyalties lie.

Adult readers aren’t the target audience for the book, and they may feel ahead of the class as Junior explain every facet of his problems, leaving few insights for the reader to discover. Some of the characters fall into stereotypes as well, notably the “nerd” at the new school, Gordon, who takes on that robotic, overelaborate way of speaking that marks geeks in popular culture.

But the book is still well crafted, which is no surprise, given Alexie’s talent. It offers a clear view into another culture and also a firsthand look at poverty and the crippling effects of alcoholism, which the author captures with a sharp, matter-of-fact bluntness. Many teen readers will benefit from the perspective, and adults will likely find something to value in the brisk read also.

Review: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

May 27th, 2014

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A beautiful book. Lahiri’s decades-spanning tale centers on two brothers born in Calcutta around the time of partition. Both high achievers—and both very close—they nonetheless diverge as one, Subhash, heads to the United States for graduate school in oceanography and the other, Udayan, dedicates himself to the region’s violent Communist uprising.

The rest of the novel explores the repercussions of those decisions, both for the brothers themselves and the generations that follow. On the one hand, you have an immigrant’s tale of alienation and eventual accommodation, one that’s sensitively captured. Subhash falls in love with his new home, making a life for himself there that wouldn’t have been possible in the country of his birth. Udayan, in contrast, remains committed to India, falling in love with a self-destructive movement that promises to liberate it—and ends up being crushed instead.

Udayan falls in love with a woman as well, and it’s that relationship—and its entanglements—that end up driving the rest of the story. Lahiri uses the theme to explore guilt, repentance and above all the ongoing damage the past’s decisions can carry to the present day.

While the point of view varies, the bulk of the book centers on Subhash. That causes some problems; while he’s a likable character, he’s also a steady, conservative actor, and the narrative can drag a bit as we follow him through a series of responsible choices. I think the author wanted to place this honorable man and his choices in the spotlight, but while they shouldn’t pale in comparison to the revolutionary fervor of Udayan, they do.

A better balance between the two brothers might have made the book more propulsive. But it would also be a mistake to paint the brothers as equivalent, as Subhash is by far the more substantial of the two. Udayan is an idealist, but the outcomes of his actions, viewed through the long lens of “The Lowland’s” narrative, deserves the moral judgment that’s ultimately placed on him.

While some characters are more sympathetic than others, Lahiri is fair to all of them. She also captures the richness of her settings, both steaming Calcutta and cool Rhode Island. (California makes an appearance as well, but it’s more of a placeholder.)

Like Subhash, this novel is reserved in its pacing presentation. But spend enough time with it, and you see the unshakable core at its center.

Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

April 24th, 2014

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This short novel is a nice little fable about a little boy who finds himself in some magical trouble. His parents own a ramshackle estate in England, one that they can’t quite afford to keep. Danger comes when a lodger arrives and starts a chain of events that draws mystical attention to the neighborhood, a kind of baffled intrusion by something very old from another world.

Fortunately, the three generations of women at the end of the lane, the youngest just a few years older than our narrator, come from that far place themselves, or somewhere near, at least, and have ways of dealing with the supernatural. They’ve become a bit cavalier in their power, though, and the girl takes the boy along for the ride and ends up setting loose the very trouble they’d hoped to bind.

The bulk of the book involves the boy trying to outwit this ghostly foe, finding a way to turn to his magic allies for help. At the same time, the struggle becomes an elaborate metaphor for adulthood. Gaiman explores the mysterious power that older folks hold in younger eyes as well as simultaneous realization that this aura of strength is just as much a facade as the faerie realm our narrator contends with.

Gaiman doesn’t seem to fully trust his reader’s ability to pick up this metaphor; he can be overexplicit in making his characters voice it. But while the subtext occasionally rises to become text, the story moves along propulsively, especially when our forces are set in opposition.

Gaiman’s narrator here isn’t always the most compelling voice; he’s a 7-year-old, unpopular, a reader, given to withdrawal and fantasy. At times he doesn’t sound much like a child, even one being filtered through the memory of his older self. But he’s ultimately resourceful enough to seek help and sturdy enough to make his move.

His allies, the Hempstocks, are nicely magical, filled with old-fashioned ways and even older abilities. They’re equally at ease with milking cows and exiling wayward spirits, although they don’t do anything as vulgar as cast spells. “Recipes” are the closest they come, its said, but they’re making magic nonetheless.

If you’ve read “Sandman” or any John Constantine, this world of faerie will feel familiar, but it’s still enjoyable. What it lacks in surprises it makes up for in comfort, even if our narrator’s plight is anything but comforting. Still, the Hempstocks stand by him, although at the end they seem to blame him for the trouble they exposed him to. That bit of characterization seems irresponsible, but maybe it’s just a case of the veil slipping, the gods revealing how they view humans.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane” is a brisk read and an enjoyable one. It may not be Gaiman’s best work, but it’s not a bad place to see what he’s all about.

Review: The Last Girlfriend on Earth by Simon Rich

February 8th, 2014

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More humorous short stories from Simon Rich, who’s been on a roll lately in the New Yorker. I like his style, which involves calmly building on familiar tropes until they explode into the absurd. On the whole, this series is good–there aren’t many duds in the bunch. But there didn’t seem to be many standouts either, and I think that’s in part because of the theme Rich has chosen.

The Last Girlfriend on Earth” is pretty much devoted to boy-girl pairings, with both participants in their twenties and the relationship either coming, building, or gone. There’s a lot of good humor to find in the topic, and Rich does, but the organizing principle for the collection doesn’t offer a lot of thematic range.

My favorite stories were ones that changed the setting or the rules somewhat. We have a great caveman love story with “I Love Girl,” and God deals with the pressure of creating the cosmos and maintaining a happy relationship in “Center of the Universe.” There’s also a surprisingly touching story about the age and retirement of a boy’s first condom in his wallet in “Unprotected.”

But while Rich tries not to stereotype, a lot of his stories capture a view of women as some unknowable “other,” weird and capricious. It’s a view that will feel familiar to many guys in their teens and early twenties (heck, maybe even older) as they try to figure out the mysteries of dating and love. But it feels limiting in many of the stories, and a couple, like “Scared Straight” and “The Girlfriend Repair Shop,” give a real whiff of the locker room.

But all in all, the stories are funny, and Rich doesn’t seem to want to make anyone look bad. I look forward to checking out another of his collections.

Review: Paul Pope, Battling Boy

January 21st, 2014

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Paul Pope is my favorite comics artist, so take this rating through that lens. I love the thick lines and expressive detail of his art as well as the “rawk and roll” energy that permeates everything he does. This volume doesn’t disappoint on the drawing board, conjuring up weird monsters, beautiful people, a sprawling city and weird Kirby-inspired future tech.

The story is a success too. We have the “Battling Boy” descending from a magical city in the sky to an earth in peril , taking on the coming of age quest that’s mandated in his warrior society. He throws himself into fighting the monsters menacing his new home, showing a mixture of bravado, inexperience and uncertainty that stretches all the way back to Peter Parker and beyond.

In a parallel story, the adolescent daughter of a murdered pulp hero takes up her dad’s mantle, resenting, in the process, this upstart newcomer. She’s rendered skillfully and sympathetically, and it’s exciting to see how they’ll interact–and how a city desperate for rescue will use them both.

This volume is definitely an introduction–it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, without much resolution. There’s a lot that’s familiar here for anyone who’s read many superhero comics. But its possessed with a unique energy and a first-class artistic talent, and I look forward to seeing what happens next.

Review: Templar by Jordan Mechner

September 2nd, 2013

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This historical fiction graphic novel is Holy Blood, Holy Grail meets the Italian Job as author Jordan Mechner follows up the arrest and dissolution of the Knights Templar with a heist plot to steal back their stores of gold. His characters are mostly scoundrels on the fringes of the order, with one true knight among them. The story takes them through the order’s collapse, with arrests, torture and false confessions staining the reputation of this wealthy, stateless army.

Mechner does a good job capturing the politics around the targeting of the Templars. An influential French minister senses weakness and aims to build himself up with their treasure. The torturers’ work feels grim and realistic, as do the coerced confessions. There’s even a late pushback as a legalistic priest uses the law to try to defend his brothers, only to finally realize the state’s patience for legal manuevering has run out.

We spend most of our time with the core cast, though. Our principal knight, Martin, escapes capture only because he’s out carousing with friends in the order, chasing an old love who got away. She returns to the plot as he and his mates aim to find the Templars’ hidden gold. Most of the party is just looking to enrich itself, although Martin has nobler objectives.

From there we get the usual complications and detective work as the oddball team closes in on their big target. Mechner and his illustrators, LeUyen Pham and Alex Puvilland, do excellent work capturing a lived-in feel for Medieval Paris. The characters are well distinguished, and the art team does a good portraying the ample action.

If you’ve watched any heist movies, the story will be familiar. The villains don’t have much depth, and several team members lend just the right skills to keep the plot going. (One, a Muslim convert who joins the crew, is a particularly egregious deus ex machina. His character may be well intended, but he’s certainly not believable.)

The volume is impressive and enjoyable, though, even if many of the elements are familiar. Especially recommended if you’re a fan of the Templar mythos.

Massive John Hodgman Interview

July 27th, 2013

Comedian Pete Holmes has a great (and very long) interview with John Hodgman on Holmes’ podcast, You Made It Weird. It’s wide-ranging stuff, moving from comedy and originality all the way to the question of Big Dadd G-O-D. Hodgman reveals a lot of his own personal history and goes into some good detail on leaving his job as a literary agent to try to stake his own creative claim. Holmes’ laugh is a bit of an aquired taste, but he serves as a nice foil, producing a really compelling listen.

Review: Tales Designed to Thrizzle Volume 2 by Michael Kupperman

July 25th, 2013

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Tales Designed to Thrizzle Volume 2 is wide ranging, bizarre and very funny. Michael Kupperman again turns a volume over to his comic imagination, riffing in stories ranging from single-page gags to an epic spoof of Quincy, M.E. that sees the 70s television coroner meet St. Peter (who has his own comic book) and get lost in an Inception-esque series of parodies.

The highlight is the recurring pairing of Mark Twain and Albert Einstein, who have a range of oddball schemes and adventures. (“I’ll tell you Al,” one opens, “I never thought we would end up on a game show hosted by Count Dracula.)

Kupperman has Twain adopt a “try anything” tough-guy patter that’s hilarious, whether the great author is serving as a Hollywood detective, blowing up asteroids or taking “sexy reporter” pills smuggled in from Japan.

The different stories adopt varying styles, but most of the volume parrots the rough, vibrant outlines and “waste no time” plotting of early superhero comics. Characters are given to wacko lines and bold pronounements: “Get offa me, you ghostly clown!” or “Gimme some pants, then I gotta investigate you two.”

But you don’t have to be subtle when you’re sharing the adventures of Jungle Princess or revealing that the moon landing actually employed death-row convicts, a la The Dirty Dozen, who later find gold. You just have to funny, and Kupperman is

Comics Review: The Grand Duke

July 19th, 2013

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The Grand Duke is an adventurous graphic novel combining World War II action in the skies with quite a bit of “we might die tomorrow” coupling on the ground. It’s skillfully done, but I don’t think it quite transcends the pulp storytelling that inspired it.

Writer Yann’s plot does a good job laying clear its “tyrants decide, the people die” theme, especially with the vile Communist boss on the Russian side. But character development on the ground is frequently interrupted to get back into the air (or out of some clothes). Beyond that, the hero is a bit too noble–a Hitler-hating German who removes the swastika from his plane–and the villains too vile.

There are some nice curveballs on the margins of the plot, and all of the art is exquisite. Romain Hugault is just as comfortable drawing historic planes as gratuitous, voluptuous female nudes. His panels are rich and detailed. A lot of care went into the drawing, and the dogfight scenes really draw you into the action in the sky. Check it out, with classic Enemy Ace as a required complement.